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Saturday, August 16, 2014

You Had Just One Job- John Swift, the Worst Executioner in British History

     Being an executioner in ye olde Britain was by no means a pleasant position to hold. And often, especially in the 18th century there were no shortage of people that needed executing. The passage of the Waltham Black Acts in 1723 added 50 crimes to the roster of offenses punishable by death. Along with rebellions and a century of war rife with deserters and traitors, many British found themselves at the gallows or their necks on the chopping block. Great Britain was in need of more executioners, and this is where the saga of John Swift begins.

    We know very little of John Swift. As a commoner in 18th century Great Britain, his life is relatively undocumented and of little note. But around 1745 he committed and was found guilty of one of the many many new crimes punishable by death. However, due to the lack of executioners he was offered a reprieve if he donned the black hood and worked as an axeman for the state. Obviously, the man chose to become the newest recruit at the Tower of London. His first beheading would be his most infamous, that of the 6th Lord of  Balmerino, Arthur Elphinstone. And now a little back story on the lord.

    After the accension of George I to the English throne in 1714, a conspiracy was hatched to overthrow the new King, who was German and of the House of Hanover, with the Charles Edward Stuart, sometimes known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie". Charles was directly descended from the House of Stuart which had ruled Scotland and later Britain for much of the 17th century(1603-1649, 1660-1688) until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 unseated the Catholic James II. With the support of Scottish and French backers, supporters of the Stuart claims (known as Jacobites) raised a largely Scottish army against the House of Hanover and were defeated. The Lord of Balmerino was one of these Jacobites and in 1645 he was sentenced to death for treason against the crown. In those days hanging was for commoners and beheading was for aristocracy or royalty. John Swift, the man who had been shanghaied into service as an axeman was slated to execute the lord on August 18th, 1646.

     In the history of botched beheadings in old England, this is certainly the most pathetic. John Swift was by no means a killer and had no lust for blood...more like no stomach to be honest. The story is that when he approached the lord he fainted at the thought of chopping his head off. When he came to, he proceeded to lay there on the platform sobbing his eyes out. Not wanting to miss a show the crowd jeered him, trying to get him to get on the with the execution. When Swift worked up the nerve, it reportedly took five blows of the axe to sever Lord Balmerino's head from his neck. Such a spectacle was this execution that Swift never lived it down. The day he died, his funeral procession was booed and heckled. The angry and cruel public threw stones and even the dead and rotting bodies of  stray animals found on the street at his coffin.

Lord Balmerino...cheery looking fellow extraordinare

John Swift...as he probably looked that day hoping they were not talking to him when they said "Get on with it"

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